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The Mobility Behaviour of Single Parents and their Activities outside the Home

Bastian Chlond and Peter Ottmann

The Mobility Behaviour of Single Parents and their Activities outside the Home

Methodological Approach
Source of Data and Sample
Car ownership and Parameters of Mobility and Activities
    Car Ownership
The Role of Homemaker (Housewife/Househusband)


On the basis of data from the German Mobility Panel, the authors look into what distinguishes the mobility and activity behaviour of single parents from that of families with two adults. Owing to the specific double burden for single parents of earning a living and rearing children, mobility plays an important role. This mobility is necessarily implemented with greater efficiency. The car is extremely important; on the other hand, single parents show greater multi-modal behaviour than others. Single parents spend more time outside the home – owing both to a relatively high level of gainful employment and for leisure purposes. An urban environment tends to offer single parents the conditions they require in their life situations.



In the past 40 years, Germany has experienced a structural change in the form of the family that has considerably differentiated the middle-class ideal of the traditional family consisting of married parents and their own children living in one household. Since then, patchwork families have become more common, as well as unmarried and same-sex partnerships with children, while single-parent families have also become more frequent. According to the Federal Statistical Office, about one fifth of all families with children in 2004 were single parent families, that is some 2.5 million households. Single parent households are hence no longer a factor to be ignored (Destatis 2006).

The life situation of the single parent differs from that of the “normal family,” where household chores can be shared among two or even more adults; the single parent has to cope alone. This means that time has to be used efficiently, especially when the single parent works and therefore has to coordinate child-rearing and employment. Moreover, many single parents have to live on one income, which can lead to bottlenecks, especially if the family situation only leaves room for a part-time job. This suggests the hypotheses that single parents live under stronger pressure with regard to the economic situation.

All important everyday obligations and activities involve mobility. They include journeys to and from work; the shopping has to be done and so-called service trips undertaken, i.e. accompanying children to various activities like school, sport, and music lessons. This points to a second hypothesis: that single parents have to be more mobile while planning their mobility more effectively to cope with time constraints. For example, single parents who are pressed for time have to concatenate activities in various places. They do not go to work, to the supermarket, and to sport directly from home but try to include all these activities in one tour.

We will see how valid these hypotheses are.


Methodological Approach

By definition, single parents are “households with only one adult parent and a number of children.” In order to examine the situation with regard to mobility and time constraints, we concentrate on households with at least one child up to and including the age of ten.

This focus is meaningful because it can be assumed that from the age of ten children are largely autonomous in deciding how to use their leisure time and that they can also travel with some degree of independence, for instance no longer needing to be accompanied on public transport. Older children can also be left unsupervised for longer periods or take on duties in the household, so that they no longer determine the daily routine as do small children. Households in which the children are over ten are therefore excluded from the study. But it does cover households in which there are children both under and over ten.

The 2.5 million single-parent households are by no means a homogeneous group. With the aid of a cluster analysis, Hammer has identified five groups, the largest, some 35 per cent of the total, being single parent households with a high degree of satisfaction. These people often live in a permanent relationship without, however, sharing a household and child-rearing. In the other four clusters, at least one source of dissatisfaction is named, for instance the employment situation or the personal social network (Hammer 2007).

The situation of single parents also differs with respect to mobility. Since mobility is strongly influenced by the occupational situation, we make a distinction between single parents in full or part-time employment or not in gainful employment. These three classes are then compared with the corresponding persons from “traditional families” – here, too, the focus is on the gainful employment of adult members of the household. To permit plausible comparisons, the “traditional” reference family is defined as follows: precisely two adults living in one household with at least one child under the age of ten and possibly with other underage children. Of the adults, at least one is in full-time employment, while the second person, as in the case of single-parent families under study, is either working full time or part time or not at all. This gives the following three comparisons:

  • Single parents in full time employment (SP FT) versus people in full-time employment from households in which both adults (e.g., couple parents) work full time (both partners are taken into account, CP FT)
  • Single parents in part time employment (SP PT) versus persons in part-time employment from households in which one adult works full time and one part-time (only the part-time person is taken into account, CP PT)
  • Single parent homemakers (housewives/househusbands) in part time employment (SP PT) versus persons in part-time employment from households in which one adult works full time and one part-time (only the non-working person is taken into account, CP NA)

These restrictions clearly ignore certain categories of household, such as those with two adults in part-time employment or with more than two adult members (e.g., grandparents). However, the subject of the study is not all types of household; the aim is rather to set up suitable categories for comparing the situation and behaviour of single parents.


Source of Data and Sample

The data is taken from the German Mobility Panel (MOP). Since 1994, persons over the age of ten have been reporting on their mobility behaviour over the course of a week (cf. Zumkeller/Chlond/Lipps 1999; The data are collected and processed for the Federal Ministry of Transport, Building and Urban Development (BMVBS).

Apart from the actual data on mobility (reports on trips in terms of purpose, starting point and destination, mode of transport, and distance), the information gathered includes the characteristics of households (number of household members, number of children, residential area, car ownership, access to the opportunities of everyday life, etc.) and persons (age, employment status, possession of driving licence, etc.). On the basis of this information, households can be sorted into different family categories. For the purposes of this study, data was examined from the beginning of the survey in 1994 up to the currently available data for 2005.

A key problem of such surveys is so-called selectivity: certain categories of people are more likely to take part in a survey and are thus overrepresented, whereas other groups are more reluctant to participate and are accordingly underrepresented. For example, more people from households with higher incomes and a better level of education take part in the German Mobility Panel since they tend to be more convinced of the need to help in a scientific study. Although it has been shown with respect to the Mobility Panel that the mobility described is not affected (Zumkeller et al. 2002), selectivity must be taken into account in interpreting the results. It seems particularly probable that, of the clusters identified by Hammer, satisfied single parents with a higher level of education will be more strongly represented in the mobility panel than single parents from “dissatisfied” clusters.

Another source of data on mobility behaviour that was used was the “Mobility in Germany 2002” survey (MiD 2002); certain facts were verified with the aid of these data. The two sources can be considered compatible. For the micro-data analysis, however, only the Mobility Panel data were used.

Table 1 lists key socio-demographic characteristics for the six categories of person. Where men are single parents, they mostly have full-time jobs, and the sample contains no single father who is not economically active. The share of men where there are two adults in full-time employment is slightly under 50 per cent; the reason is a small number of households with two adult women (e.g., mother and grandmother or same-sex partnerships).

Compared with partnership households, the single parents in the sample tended to live in towns and cities (cf. table 2). Single parents apparently tend to find the necessary conditions in urban areas, in first place child care facilities (public or private), and possibly better opportunities for shopping and recreation.



Car ownership and Parameters of Mobility and Activities

Table 3 shows household car ownership and selected mobility parameters for the categories of person described above.


In addition, a t-test was carried out for the parameters of the given comparative categories of single and non-single parents, which gave insight into the significance of differences (highly significant at the 99 per cent level [**], significant at the 90 per cent level [*], and not significant [-]). It should, however, be pointed out that, where the number of cases considered is small, significance is often difficult to prove, so that differences in the averages where no significance is noted should also be taken into consideration.


Car Ownership

The number of cars per driving licence holder in the household was calculated. In general, car ownership is relatively high in households with small children under the age of ten – compared with other categories (not shown here). The MiD 2002 data confirm these results.

This suggests that, if a person with children in the household – regardless of other factors of the life situation – is engaged in gainful employment, a car is generally “necessary.” Only with a car can a mother or father reconcile various activities and demands with family work in everyday life. It seems that a car is not necessarily a luxury but a requirement for coping with everyday life. In households with several adults, however, this car may be shared (cf. Zumkeller et al. 2005).

Among single parents who are not economically active (housewives and househusbands, others without employment) car ownership is much lower in the sample than among economically non-active persons in households with a partner in full-time employment, even though the differences are not significant. This reflects the economic situation: unemployed single parents are under much greater economic pressure than families with at least one breadwinner. In this regard the result is a methodological artefact, since in this case a household with only non-working members was compared with a household having at least one person in gainful employment.

Nonetheless, it seems that, precisely with respect to working single parents, car ownership in Germany depends much less on economic possibilities than on the necessity of having a private means of transport.

Given these findings, the general life situation of working single parents can be described less as an economic problem than as one of time budget.



Participation in traffic
This “time problem” of single parents shows in their participation in traffic (defined as the probability of leaving the home at least once a day). For working single parents, this value is significantly higher than for working people from couple households.

This difference is relevant for working single parents, being as they are under the pressure of time. Comparing traffic participation by non-working single parents with that of housewives or househusbands in couple households, no significant differences are apparent.

Greater traffic participation indirectly indicates the greater pressure to which single parents are subject: they cannot afford to fall ill or take time off because there is no-one to perform their obligations. Family work and the necessary mobility cannot be shared out between adults in the household.

Number of journeys
Working single parents undertake more journeys (i.e., changes of location) than people in the comparative categories, and at least for those working full time, the difference is significant. Once again, it seems to play a role that single parents have sole responsibility for the mobility and care of their children over and above their occupational duties; they can neither share these responsibilities nor fail to perform them.

Number of trips per journey
Considering only the number of changes of location, an impression is gained of the time pressure to which the person concerned is subject but not how he or she handles it. The number of trips per journey from home shows how a person copes with the pressure of time: the more different activities are combined within one journey from home, the more efficiently time is managed. Generally speaking, people working full time are more efficient than, for instance, people who do not work.

However, the degree of activity coupling among single parents is significantly higher. One exception are the economically non-active: apparently they have less need to couple activities. These findings show that non-working persons from single-parent households and from couple households do not differ much with respect to activities and mobility.

If the spatial structure effect is also taken into consideration, single parents are even more efficient: normally, city dwellers do not couple activities very much, because, for instance, shopping facilities tend to be available close to home and there is therefore less need to couple several trips within one journey. Residents of smaller places without shopping facilities, in contrast, have to shop on their way home from work. It should be remembered that a higher proportion of single parents are car owners, which again makes it much easier to couple activities.

Trips in terms of purpose
If the trips undertaken are differentiated in terms of purpose, single parents working part time make significantly more trips to work than part-time workers from couple households. There seem to be two reasons.

  • The extent of paid work is greater altogether. This is apparent from the duration of working activity, which is significantly longer among single parents. This can primarily be explained by economic pressure: in couple households with more than one breadwinner, a second income can often be seen as a sort of extra. The extent of employment can thus be determined relatively flexibly to suit inclinations, whereas single parents have to work a minimum number of hours to earn an income sufficient to feed the family.
  • Single parents are more strongly tied to their children’s schedules, for instance the end of the school day. The significantly higher number of trips to work undertaken by single parents in part-time employment means that they have to work on more days of the week. It is possibly more difficult for single parents to concentrate a certain volume of work into a few days, thus saving trips and mobility, because family duties cannot be delegated to other members of the household during these times.

Working single parents also make more trips for recreational purposes than comparable people in couple households. This is also the case with regard to the length of time spent outside the home in leisure pursuits. For single parents working full time, these differences are also significant. Because only people over the age of ten keep trip diaries, the extent to which parents spend this leisure time with their children cannot be determined. There are two probable explanations for single parents’ longer recreational activities outside the home:

  • Given their family situation, single parents possibly have a greater need to communicate and maintain social relations with people from the same age group, since at home they have primarily to do with (small) children. If single parents are unattached, the search for a partner can also induce them to engage in more activities outside the home than married people.
  • Other single parents, in contrast, are already in a relationship but without sharing a household. In this case, time spent with the partner means more mobility and more time spent outside the home.

Greater flexibility in mobility is thus not only necessary for single parents in order to handle the duties of occupation and child-raising but also in order to maintain social contacts.

Modal Split
The higher degree of car ownership among working single parents intuitively suggests greater car use. However, the share of motorised private transport in the modal split is smaller than that for people living in one household with a working partner; these differences are not significant. In contrast, the share of public transport and non-motorised means of transport among single parents is higher than in comparative groups.

This can be for a number of reasons:

  • Greater economic pressure, and especially time constraints, force single parents to plan their mobility as effectively as possible. For example, shopping must be done in one go on Saturdays, whereas couples can afford to use the car for piecemeal purchases. At least among working single parents, the number of trips per journey is actually higher than that of comparative groups.
  • Couples more frequently travel as passengers in cars, whereas single parents generally have fewer opportunities to take a lift.
  • The residential environment also plays a role: the proportion of single parents is higher in cities than in smaller communities. This means that single parents use public transport or non-motorised modes of transport more frequently. Taken together with the high level of car ownership, this suggest that, owing to economic and time constraints, single parents must generally plan their mobility more rationally, always choosing the most suitable mode of transport and using multiple modes of transport (Beckmann et al. 2006).

The Role of Homemaker (Housewife/Househusband)

Looking at the differences between the comparative groups, it is striking that people who are not economically active resemble one another most with respect to all the indicators under study: most differences are slight and not significant, with the sole exception of modal split. However, other factors mentioned above play a role (area type, lift opportunities).

This similarity appears quite logical. Whereas working single parents have to play two roles at the same time, couples can at least share child-rearing and housekeeping. Non-working single parents, in contrast, do not have to play this double role, although they might well have other personal obligations, for example if they are still going to school or studying. Owing to the rather high average age of the sub-sample, however, the latter aspect is likely to play only a secondary role.

Housewives/househusbands in a permanent relationship with a full-time earner, in contrast, have presumably made a sort of arrangement with regard to sharing tasks in the family to the effect that one person is mainly responsible for family work, i.e., housekeeping and care of the children, while the other earns the family income. Thus they do not differ substantially from non-working single parents with regard to roles and the activities and mobility they involve.



In organising their mobility and activities, single parents have a harder time than couple parents. Working time and leisure are tied to the opening hours of child-care facilities, and the service trips for taking and fetching the children, as well as other household chores like shopping have to be carried out alone, whereas in other families they can be dealt with by other adult members of the household in the course of journeys they would be making anyway. Hence, single parents have to plan their daily schedule under additional constraints.

In general, working single parents spend significantly more time outside the home than comparative groups. Among people in full-time work, this difference arises primarily through the leisure time spent outside the home, while among part-time earners the reason is mainly longer working hours. It has been mentioned that single parents are subject to greater economic and time pressure, and that they may have a greater need for social contacts outside the home.

This longer absence from home – especially for leisure purposes outside the usual opening hours of care facilities – shows the need for reliable and comprehensive care services even outside the traditional hours of work.

Economic, time, and social constraints have a stronger impact on the mobility of single parents. Depending on their situation in life, a range of restrictions can come to bear. While time problems play a major role for people working full time, part-time employees face greater financial constraints and restrictions on recreational activities outside the home. Non-working single parents, in contrast, are not much different from housewives or househusbands in families with a full-time earner.

Single parents are more likely to live in an urban setting than comparable families. Cities offer better child-care facilities and the distances to be travelled are shorter, which plays a key role in view of the combined pressure of tight financial and time budgets. Moreover, single parents can better satisfy their greater need for recreation outside the home in an urban environment.



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 Brand, D./Hammer, V. (Hrsg.) (2002): Balanceakt Alleinerziehend. Lebenslagen, Lebensformen, Erwerbsarbeit, Wiesbaden. (back)

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 Zumkeller, D./Chlond, B./Kuhnimhof, T./Manz, W. (2003): Selektivität des Mobilitätspanel. Schlussbericht zu FE 96.07342/2002 im Auftrag des BMVBW, Karlsruhe, November 2003. (back)

 Zumkeller, D./Chlond, B./Lipps, O. (1999): Das Mobilitätspanel (MOP) – Konzept und Realisierung einer bundesweiten Längsschnittbetrachtung, in: Schriftenreihe der Deutschen Verkehrswissenschaftlichen Gesellschaft, Heft B217 (1999), 33–72. (back)

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